Am I Pretty Yet?

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Chapter 13: Frozen Yogurt

“We have to find you the perfect dress for the catwalk on Friday,” Richel sighed as she pined through yet another rack of clothes. We were at the mall. It was already eight o’clock on a school night. Needless to say, I wasn’t exactly over the moon happy about shopping this late. However I knew if I tried so much as to disagree, Richel might explode. Therefore, I willed myself to go along with the plan since she had dragged a very grumpy, napping Parker out of bed to drive us to our, or rather my, dress destination. As soon as we got to the mall, he sleepily grumbled that he would be waiting in the car for us while he, quote: “resumed the hours of sleep that had been snatched away.”

“Would you quit calling it that? Catwalk,” I snorted, rolling my eyes and running my fingers lightly over a long, flowy beige colored dress with a silver sequined bodice. “Can I try this one on? It looks nice.”

Richel huffed, turning around, her eyes doing a full length scan of the dress I held up with both hands by the hanger. She nodded, and I walked over to the dressing room area. The main pro about shopping just near closing time was that lines had grown smaller, so there wasn’t much of a wait. The con was that it felt eerily quiet, with only the occasional squeaking of wheels on the cart of the janitor passing by. Only a small handful of stores were open. The rest had their gates shut and locked. The food court was barely breathing, and only one fast food joined called Pizza Pizza (because everything sounds better when doubled) was awake and alive with a skinny teenage boy manning the register, but just barely. When we’d passed by him, I was almost tempted to order two pepperoni pizzas just to give him something to do, but Richel stopped me immediately. It had grease and fat and wasn’t good for me, apparently.

As I entered the dressing room, I was faced with three full length mirrors. One was in front of me, the other two to my right and left. Triple Ninas, all staring back at me and waiting for the verdict of this first dress. I felt the silence slicing into my skin as I undressed, first taking off my jeans and then my T-shirt. I sucked in a breath as I tilted my chin to the right and observed myself. Not too much going on in the chest area. There wasn’t even a chance that I could overflow my bra. My thighs awkwardly stuck together, and my knees seemed a bit knobby to me. I placed my hands on my hips and tried smiling, then stopped when it appeared too forced and fake. Next, I tried shooting myself a sultry look, ones that I’d always seen plastered on billboards on the highways or in Cosmopolitan magazines. It mainly looked as if I was trying to go to the bathroom.

In just four days I would be walking across a stage, expected to strut and act like I did this all the time: modeled and participated in beauty pageants. I was supposed to make it seem as if this was all second nature to me, only it wasn’t. Not at all, not any small piece of it. I was taking everything in for the first time with a new, fresh pair of eyes and perspective. The girl in the mirrors looked so small and so scared and so unsure of herself. I wanted to hug her, but then I’d really only be hugging myself.

“Everything is going to be okay, Nina,” I whispered, making direct eye contact with my eyes in the mirror smack dab in front of me. “No matter what happens.”

“What was that, Nina?” Richel called from the outside, and I jumped, clutching the dress to my practically naked body.

“Nothing!” I replied. “Just a cough.” Then as quickly as possible, I jammed myself into the dress, shimmying my hips and then jumping up a bit to get the bodice to fit and fall properly beneath my shoulders. It was a strapless, something I hadn’t even noticed until I was wearing it. I took a deep breath, then stepped out of the dressing room. I didn’t bother looking back into those three mirrors. Richel looked up from her cellphone, her jaw dropping.

“Oh… my God,” she whispered. I cringed, biting my lip.

“It’s that bad, huh?” I asked, turning my gaze to the ground. I wasn’t sure how many other dresses I could try on only to reach a horrible verdict after each one.

“No, you look-”

“Beautiful,” a different voice jumped in. I snapped my head up and then felt my entire body collapsing. Not on the outside, not in a way where I found myself on the floor with my cheek against the carpet. It was more of an internal sinking, as if an anchor had been chained to my ankle and was dragging me down.

“Dad,” I breathed, blinking. He was right there, standing before me. He had gotten a haircut, and his choice in attire had changed since the last time I’d seen him. There had been some improvement: a button up shirt paired with black pants. “What are you doing here?”

Richel looked back and forth from me to my dad, her eyebrows rising by each passing minute. I couldn’t blame her. I knew our similarities were striking and noticeable. I was my father’s daughter. I could hear the Triple Ninas in the mirrors running away fast, her footsteps pounding against shards of glass as she made her escape. Unfortunately I couldn’t jump into an alternate mirror universe and join them. I had to stand right here, in front of a person I had been trying my hardest to avoid and not think about at every waking second, despite the fact that his DNA was a part of me.

“I’m here with Helena and Christina,” he said. I forgot how raspy his voice sounded when he talked, how soft he said each syllable of every word that he spoke. “How are you?”

How dare you ask me that, I wanted to say, but Richel was right there. I didn’t want to drag her into the mess that was my family, or what little fragments and pieces that were left of it. So instead, I swallowed the large lump that had grown in the pit of my throat and sucked in a breath.

“Good,” I said. Even a passerby could tell that my answer was too abrupt and cold to mean that this was a catch-up-on-the-old-days type of conversation. Not that this mattered; I had purposely meant for my answer to sound abrupt and clipped. He didn’t deserve anything from me, not a smile or a fake happy answer.

He leaned back uneasily on the heels of his feet, quickly picking up my guarded stance. Richel took a step closer beside me and placed a reassuring hand beneath my elbow. She smiled at him, showing all her teeth before lending him her hand.

“Richel DeAngelis,” she stated, shaking his hand with, from what I could see, a firm grip. Her fingers wrapped tightly around his fist, and his eyebrows rose in amusement. I panicked for a second, worried that she would forget that I had meant to keep the pageant low key and tell him what our agenda for today was, but she proved to be smarter by saying nothing further.

“Nice to meet you, Richel,” he said, stuffing the hand that she shook back into his pocket. He was still nervous about meeting new people; this part of him hadn’t changed. I felt the lump coming back in my throat and forced myself to find a spot behind his head that I could focus on to keep myself from bursting at the seams.

As if to test my already high running emotions, none other than Christina and little Helena came waltzing over to us holding two dresses. They were chattering and Helena was giggling, her curly hair bouncing along her shoulders and down her back. I caught a shimmer on Christina’s ring finger and felt pure hatred pulsing through my veins. My blood was boiling at the sight of them with him. How could they easily accept him knowing he had another family that he had abandoned? How could a person be so forgiving? Christina’s smile faded away when her eyes fell on me and then my father, who was merely standing and staring at me. I could tell he was still taking in the sight of me, considering the fact that it had been awhile since the last time we saw each other. We both weren't prepared for this awkward store run-in.

“Nina,” Christina greeted, sending me a soft smile. I could tell what she was doing: sympathizing. But I had had enough sympathizing and pitying from people to last myself a lifetime. “You’ve grown taller.”

I shrugged my shoulders, unsure of what to say in return to a remark like this. Christina had simpler looks compared to my mother: short brown hair, blue eyes, and thin lips with not too much of a deep Cupid’s bow. Helena stood beside her mother, clutching one of the dresses. She took after Christina but had managed to somehow have my dad’s bushy eyebrows, yet they were strangely fitting for her slender face shape.

“Have you received our invitation for Helena’s birthday?” Christina continued, clearly aiming for the soft spot and deciding to get it over with, like ripping off a band aid. Mom had given it to me last week. It had arrived with the rest of our other bills and miscellaneous junk mail. It sat on my desk, untouched and unopened.

“Yes,” I blankly replied. I didn’t add anything more, and she bit her lip, turning her gaze to Richel.

“You should come,” Dad said, and Helena smiled and nodded.

“It’s a princess themed party!” she exclaimed, and a few customers passing by sent her the sweetest looks. She was a bit of a charmer for an eight year old.

“Cool,” Richel commented, grinning.

“I won’t be able to make it that day. I have an event to attend,” I curtly said. Helena frowned and Christina patted her shoulder comfortingly. Perhaps someday one of them could explain to Helena that her father was mine. That whenever I saw him I wanted to scream and cry and break something.

“I see,” he said quietly, and I began to walk backwards to my dressing room, desperate to cut the conversation short. “Well, you should purchase that dress. You look stunning, Nina. Just like your mom.”

I froze at this last sentence, narrowing my eyes at him. As if he realized the weight his words carried, he opened his mouth. “”What I meant was that-”

“It’s okay,” I said, cutting him off and sending him a strained smile. “I know exactly what you meant. Fortunately, I am like my mother.”

He blinked, then nodded at me before ushering Christina and Helena towards the nearest check out line. I felt my lip wobble as if I were young again, so I zoomed into the dressing room before letting a few tears fall. I looked at myself once more in the mirror. Every time I felt like I was getting closer to finding myself, I took three steps back, a never ending board game I no longer wanted to play.

Standing in front of the machine, I pulled down the silver lever and lowered my cup just beneath the nozzle.

“What flavor?” Parker asked beside me. I kept my eyes steadily focused on the frozen yogurt drizzling down, moving my cup into a circular motion for the yogurt to form a swirl.

“Vanilla with Oreo,” I dimly replied. After the fiasco that was unexpectedly running into my dad at a mall, Richel was clearly trying to cheer me up with a spontaneous froyo trip. Parker was even acting more chipper and cooperative than his usual grumpy self. I kept replaying the look on my dad’s face when he’d seen me in the dress, how I couldn’t quite decipher whether he was surprised to see me in a good or bad way. Dissecting reactions was not my forteit.

Moving over to the toppings section, I sprinkled almonds, chocolate chips and toffee all over my yogurt and sighed. The sight of it was surprisingly making me feel a bit better.

“That’s it?” Parker said in disbelief, startling me once more by the fact that he hovered just over my shoulder. I whirled around, frowning at him. “That’s all you’re going to put on your frozen yogurt?”

I looked back down at the contents in my cup. “Yes. Do you have a problem with that?”

“Not a problem, a catastrophe,” he exhaled, shaking his head at me in pity. Our cups slid down the counter to keep the line moving, but I found myself taking a peek at his own yogurt filled cup. He grinned triumphantly. “This is how you do it.” He then began to point out each individual topping he’d added into his frozen yogurt. “Gummy bears in a variety of colors to add chewy texture. Rainbow sprinkles because man. Coconut shavings, but only a light dose of them. Cubed jello squares-”

“Pause,” I interrupted him, letting out a laugh. “I like keeping my frozen yogurt simple. It’s not my problem that you go all wack-o with yours.”

His jaw dropped and he scoffed loudly, making the people waiting in line behind us shoot disturbed glances. “Gummy bears, coconut shavings, and rainbow sprinkles are not wack-o, dear Nina.”

“You forgot the cubed jello squares, dear Parker,” I mimicked, rolling my eyes and feeling entertained as we both placed our frozen yogurt cups onto the scale to be weighed.

“Seven eighty two,” the cashier stated. Parker and I both reached for our wallets, his somewhere buried deep in his jean pocket and mine hidden in my purse (I got a purse!), when suddenly the cashier laughed. We both slowly looked up. She cleared her throat but was still biting back a grin. “I’m sorry. Your boyfriend isn’t paying for you?”

I blinked, horrified. “No. He’s not my boyfriend.”

Now it was her turn to blink and feel overly embarrassed. “Oh, God, my apologies,” she stammered, her cheeks turning a bright pink as Parker and I handed her our money. She mumbled a quiet “thank you” before turning her attention to the customer behind us. I ducked my head down but Parker thought this accidental slip of the tongue was laugh out loud hilarious.

“Would you calm down?” I hissed through gritted teeth, searching for Richel, who had disappeared from the shop. I spotted her outside, standing near a small group of black tables and chairs.

“It’s just your reaction, that’s all,” he chuckled, following me outside of the frozen yogurt shop and into the warmth of the sunlight. “Would it really be that gross to have me as a boyfriend?”

“Yes,” I immediately responded, and he busted out laughing again, leaning against his knees and holding a hand against his stomach.

When he finally caught his breath he gasped, “I’m serious. Think about it. Really think.”

I sighed, rolling my eyes before really thinking about it. Parker didn’t have your every day boyfriend qualities. He wasn’t a real gentleman. Not once had he ever held the door open for Richel and I, much less pulled out a chair for either of us. He was a reckless driver, a class cutter, and a rebellious son. But in the time that I spent with him, I’d also managed to find the cracks in his exterior and gotten a peek at the interior. He was witty and funny, not to mention wise in his own way. He had good intentions for the world, and he was the ultimate keeper of secrets that mattered the most if it meant protecting the people he loved.

“I guess it wouldn’t be that bad…” I slowly admitted, and he grinned, pointing his index finger at me.

“Ha!” he exclaimed just as we reached Richel, who was already halfway into her frozen yogurt. She’d gotten cotton candy swirl topped off with cherries and pecans, and the cherries were staining her lips a rosy red.

“Don’t get a big head,” I reminded him.

“I knew it,” he continued, not hearing my comment at all. “You like me, Nina Gregory.”

Richel’s eyes nearly bugged out of her face and she choked a bit while swallowing her froyo. I patted her back to clear her airway. “You cannot like my twin brother. It’s a basic friendship rule.”

“I don’t,” I insisted. “Remember?”

Richel’s shoulders relaxed and she laughed, taking one last bite of a cherry before tossing the cup into the trash can nearby. “Oh. Right. Sorry.”

“Pretending to like an imaginary someone else only digs you deeper into denial,” Parker sang, ruffling my hair with his knuckles. I wrinkled my nose in annoyance at him. Before we got in the car, he opened the door for me. Stunned, I sent him a doubtful glance. He leaned his elbow against the side of the car roof and tilted his head towards me. I felt my heart stop. “I’m sorry you ran into your dad.”

I swallowed, letting the knot that had formed in my stomach slowly untie. “Thanks,” I whispered back. Perhaps froyo runs truly did make a day go better.

“No,” Richel groaned, hitting her head against the window. Parker sighed, rolling his eyes and shaking his head, but I on the other hand was confused.

“What?” I asked as we passed by a small shopping center and slowed down in front of a stoplight.

She nudged her chin towards the radio speaker. “This song. I hate this song.”

“Why?” I craned my ears to make out the tune and the lyrics before realizing that this was the most played song on my phone. I bit my lip out of guilt and prayed she wouldn’t see right through me. Parker made a U-turn and I felt my seat belt pull me back all the way from the waist up, tightening around my rib cage.

“Well, I used to love it,” she explained. “But the radio has a bad habit of constantly keeping it on repeat after every other song. You know you’ve just heard it a couple of minutes ago, yet someone in the studio thinks that their listeners don’t pay attention. We do.”

I nodded, although I quickly stopped when she couldn’t see me since she was in the passenger seat and I was in the back. “I agree, one hundred percent,” I spoke up. “Maybe you should make your own radio station that only plays the same song no more than three times a day.”

Parker turned into their street and started slowing down as we drove over the humps. “Richel having her own radio station? That would make the world’s ears bleed. She has horrible taste in music.”

Richel smacked him on the shoulder. “Hey! Watch it, Mr. Rock and Roll. There is nothing wrong with liking the Top 40. There’s a reason as to why they’re called Top 40.”

“Yeah, because the current teenage generation also has horrible taste in music,” he scoffed, spinning his wheel drastically as we came to a screeching halt in the driveway. I laughed, and then my eyes wandered to the front door of their house opening. A man in a black suit and tie carrying a brown leather briefcase was walking out and didn’t even bother to look at us, clearly in a rush. Something told me he didn’t want anyone to see him. I noticed the way Parker slowly took his keys out of the ignition, his eyes following the mysterious man get into his silver vehicle parker just along the curb, then speed off down the street. For a moment, neither of us said anything. I wasn’t even sure if anyone breathed.

“Who was that?” Richel finally asked, breaking the silence. Her voice came out timid and small, something I hadn’t quite heard before from someone like her, someone so bright who burned with enthusiasm.

Parker stashed his keys in his jean pocket before opening the door, getting out of the car as if nothing had even happened. Technically, nothing had. Yet it felt like something did.

Richel narrowed her eyes at him, then jumped out of her seat and I suddenly felt like I was interrupting a whole movie theater. The only reason I had tagged along was because I had told Mom that I needed to spend a few hours at Harrison’s house to study for an upcoming History exam that he also happened to have already taken the week before. It was a fairly truthful lie. Harrison was taking History. The History of not always doing his homework until the very last minute.

I stayed inside the car, watching Richel and Parker with watchful, wide eyes and feeling very much like a child about to witness their parents get into a fight.

“So you have no clue who that is?” she questioned, stepping in front of Parker and blocking his way. He stopped in his steps, and I could almost imagine him trying to keep calm and steady, trying to keep his cool.

“Nope,” I heard him reply.

“Liar!” she exclaimed, and I felt myself jump. “You’re my twin brother, do you keep on forgetting? I know your tell. Your jaw just twitched. You’re lying to me.” She paused, taking a deep breath. “Who was that?”

I held my breath, my throat feeling on fire. Secrets were hard to keep. I could tell by the way Parker had his fists clenched behind his back, a hidden side of him that I got to see because he was facing away from me. Only when someone wasn’t facing me could I catch peeks of who they really were.

“I just told you that I have no clue. Will you quit being paranoid?” he snapped, and Richel blinked before stomping off into the house, closing the front door behind her with a slam. I flinched, turning my head down to stare numbly at my lap. So much for going over pageant routines in her room. Now my pageant practice had been cut short, and all I could really do was sit awkwardly in the car until Parker got the hint that I was still in it. When he finally did turn around, his face seemed exhausted.

I could clearly see the lines creased into his forehead from frowning, his mouth turned downwards. He let out a long breath, one that signified the consequences of the weight of a secret. His shoulders were slumped and when his eyes met mine, I couldn’t help but feel pity. So I unbuckled my seatbelt to reach for the button that would roll down the window near the driver’s seat. He walked over to me, leaning his hands against his knees. I smiled softly at him.

“If you want, you can drive me home and stay at my place for a bit. I’m sure my mom won’t mind,” I offered.

He let out a short laugh. “I’m sure your mom will mind,” he pointed out. “But I guess I don’t have much of a choice, do I?”

I smiled, shaking my head, then opened the door before shimmying into the passenger seat and letting him take over the wheel. I wanted to correct him, to tell him that he did have a choice. He could come with me to sit and pout, or he could go into his house and explain everything to Richel. But something told me that Parker wasn’t quite ready to do this yet. He needed to practice unveiling heavily weighted secrets before he was dragged down to the point of no return.

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